The support we give nursing students now will affect the workforce for years to come

COVID-19 means all students are in unknown territory, whether on placement or learning online

Nursing students who opt in to clinical practice will be supervised as part of their
extended placement Picture: Barney Newman

We face a crisis of a kind we’ve never seen before.

With the numbers of patients we are seeing with COVID-19, current NHS staffing would be unable to cope. The academic sector has needed to ask what it can do to help.  

Final-year nurses can make a significant contribution to the NHS

Our nursing students are highly skilled, with evidence-based knowledge gleaned from rigorous undergraduate programmes. They possess everything necessary to make a significant contribution at this time of unprecedented need.  

The Council of Deans of Health, working with a variety of organisations and individuals, including the RCN, the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC), the UK’s chief nursing officers and Health Education England – agreed on a way forward. It’s a credit to everyone that we achieved this so quickly and effectively.

In a nutshell, students in all fields of nursing who are in the final six months of their final year now have the opportunity to engage in an extended placement and support the NHS pandemic response. 

I understand that some people have concerns about students’ preparedness, and I don’t dismiss these. This is new territory and we’re all trying to find our way through.

But I emphasise these are students in the final stages of their preregistration journey. Many have already secured their first nursing posts. Moreover, they will be supervised as they will be on an extended placement. 

Let’s do what we can to support students who opt in to placements

Above all, many are keen to play their part in supporting practice. At the University of Cumbria, most of our third-year students want to go in and help, which is outstanding.

It feels unethical not to allow third-year students to opt in, but it’s important to remember it is their choice – no one is being forced and some students may be unable to do so and have valid reasons for this.

‘We need to consider how we care for those students who have gone through this experience, so we don’t lose them from the workforce in the years to come’

Universities must also rise to the challenge. We need to think about how to support those who choose to get involved with the COVID-19 effort, remembering we have a duty of care to them.

These students need to understand the unfortunate reality that they may become ill. It’s imperative we provide our nursing students with the right information from the NMC and other sources, so they can make an informed choice. 

Nursing students at earlier stages will be affected by COVID-19 in different ways. Those in their second year are also being offered the possibility of an extended placement, but only for 80% of the week.

Universities will continue to support them in offering reflection and practical advice, while checking that their well-being – including self-care and mental health – is not compromised.  

First-year nursing students should be supported in their studies

We are advising that first-year students are removed from the practice setting, with universities continuing to support their studies online. What we need to avoid is losing them from the nursing workforce in three years’ time – and that might mean juggling modules between years one and two, so they can continue their education even while unable to venture into hands-on practice.  

It is vital we keep our eye on the supply route, so decisions we’re making today don’t adversely affect the potential nursing workforce of the future. It would be inappropriate for universities to send first-year students into practice during this crisis, when their skills and knowledge are only just beginning to develop.  

We’ll need to care for those going through this experience, to ensure we don’t lose them

We recognise this is a stressful time for everyone. I have no doubt that the mental health of students, healthcare professionals and society at large is affected.

Universities already have mental health frameworks and our challenge now is delivering that support online, thinking creatively about how we meet students’ needs. In particular, we need to consider how we care for those who have gone through this experience, so we don’t lose them from the workforce in the years to come.  

Students will gain a wealth of experience during the pandemic

Students who opt in will gain insights and experience of how a pandemic affects individuals and society, in a way we all hope they never see again.

They will witness how a workforce pulls together as a team in a dynamic environment. This experience will produce a skill set that they will take with them into their nursing career. I hope it is something that will enable them to enhance their practice, motivating them to become the nursing leaders of tomorrow.   

For now, it is hard to visualise anything good coming out of this crisis. But we will get through – and there will be a chance for people to stop, reflect and then celebrate the contribution they were able to make.  

Brian Webster-Henderson is pro-chancellor (health), University of Cumbria and chair of the Council of Deans of Health